How We Built The Space That Young Queer People In Manipur Always Needed

Manipur, being a conflicted border state, is a very sensitive region when it comes to identity and rights. The state prioritizes issues like the citizenship crisis, insurgency, militarization, substance abuse, unemployment, migration, high HIV prevalence, and high school dropout rate. But youth and Queer issues are seen as ‘soft’ issues and often ignored. And this means that young queer people have no social support when it comes to their health and well-being. With already limited resources, these young people have a difficult time competing for their basic survival, leave alone livelihoods.

Stigma, lack of visible support system, and almost no safe spaces for networking and counseling means that queer adolescents and youths do not come out and seek support in their home state. Migration becomes the only way to explore themselves, learn new things and earn a living outside the state where they feel more liberated. But is migration the only solution? And what happens to under-privileged youth without these opportunities?

For a long time, I believed migration was the only way to be myself. It indeed was one of the safest solutions for me and for many others too. For those queer individuals, who couldn’t migrate, mostly have little understanding about their sexuality & orientations due to lack of knowledge and support system and the issues arising out of it which indirectly affects their well being and mental health.

Board members of Ya_All Manipur. Image Source: Facebook.

Our Story

Ya_All, which reads as “Yawol” in Manipuri, translates to “Revolution”. The network was formed on May 17, 2017 (International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), as a secret WhatsApp group to discuss personal issues faced by queer youths in Manipur.

With increasing stigmatization and discrimination, and the need to create a support system for each other, we came out openly as a collective, and now we work all through the year as an independent voluntary youth network initiating conversations and dialogue around youth health and sexuality  issues.

In 2019, Ya-All set up Meitram—a space run by queer youth—to address the community’s problems. It is first of its kind space run by queer individuals which provides free services to the community. Meitram aims to empower and equip the youth and de-stigmatize the conversations around these issues.

A view of Meitram. Photo courtesy of the author.

Health And Well-Being For Manipur’s Queer Youth

Three main obstacles to good health for queer youth lie before us.

Many have taken to abusing substances in one form or the other. Manipur shares roughly a 298 km long border with Myanmar. Because of this, the state has easy access to all sorts of drugs. Name anything and you will get tablets, powder, crystal, and alcohol at cheaper rates. The proximity to ‘Golden Triangle’, known for illegal drug trading in the world, is a big challenge.

Queer people are very much prone to substance abuse .  I am a substance abuse survivor who survived two overdoses. The discrimination towards individuals who abused drugs are so high that no one talks about substance abuse among queer community in India. This, in the long run, affects their health and productivity at workplaces.   I might be one of the first queer person who is openly advocating against drug abuse because of the adversity of the issue. Hope more people will acknowledge the need and support the cause.

Sexual and reproductive health issues also affect queer youth, as does mental health. Most people do not access health services because of the homo-negative set ups or heteronormative settings in health centres and institutions. The language used in the medical field is also as insensitive as it is heterenormative. Queer people are judged based on their behaviours even before they seek therapy—all because of a lack of queer affirmative treatment.

To address these issues, we have partnered with Mariwala Health Initiative, which has hand-holded us in creating a mental health space for queer youths in our co-working space. We provide free peer counselling and also link professional therapists with our clients for free counseling services. Another partner, on reporting crimes like online bullying and extortion, is Blued, a gay dating app, with whom we have opened a helpline for North East India.

A  Co-Working and Cafe Space for Queer Community

Another issue is of employment. Without safe workplaces, queer people are left with few options.

Numerous trans women, or “Nupi Maanbi”,  work as make-up artists who run beauty parlors for their livelihoods. It is one of the most common ways of earning. But unfortunately, beauty services have been stereotyped as their main lifeline. Trans men prefer to get into jobs that are seen as “manworthy”, thanks to the patriarchy. There is a huge divide in the types of jobs different people take up. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are still very invisible in the Manipur. And because of these stereotyped occupations, many are lured in by the idea of fitting into a role that shows how “manly” or how “womanly” they are rather than the productive or diverse things they could do.

Meitram provides an inclusive, safe space for queer individuals (young and old!) to be themselves, network, and grow through information and services. We use tools like sports and games, art, fashion, and media to empower and advocate for our space and rights. There’s free peer-to-peer training, advocacy, and of course, free tea, coffee, snacks, and a shoulder to lean on when you need it.

Short Homestay Support for Queer People

Many queer people face crises at home or elsewhere. Sometimes they are thrown out of home or run away due to harassment or violence in their surroundings. On May 17 , 2019, our two-year anniversary, Ya_All  opened the office space for those queer individuals facing such crisis. Presently,  we support day-stay during office hours but many requests have come, asking to stay in our space. While our resources are limited, we are opening a home from our own resources which can host up to 20 individuals.

Into A Rainbow Future

We noticed that in the larger queer movement in the country, the queer voices from Northeast India were under-represented or often tokenistic.

Ya-All is the first-of-its-kind queer &youth-led network of LGBTQ people and allies in Manipur, working openly at the grassroots level in the region. It was more of a need than a cause that created Ya_All, which allows us to raise our issues. Ya_ All believes in every individual’s ability. It’s just that we need a safe space and a safer home to nurture the skills and talents we have. For queer individuals in this border state, our needs and rights have long been neglected. However, we will keep raising our voices against racism, exclusion, and discrimination.

Queer Manipuri and North Eastern people breathe the same air, enjoy the same sun, and share the same country as the mainland people, and therefore, we believe we should get the same love, attention and rights.

Featured Image source: Manipur Youth Network Ya_All
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